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Dresden Staatskapelle (and WPAS) in North Bethesda

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Brahms, Violin Concerto / C. Schumann, Three Romances, L. Batiashvili, Dresden Staatskapelle, C. Thielemann
(DG, 2013)
Given the direction Washington Performing Arts Society seems to be going -- more about that below -- we should perhaps savor the last Neale Perl season from WPAS, with performances by András Schiff, Evgeny Kissin, and Rafał Blechacz in just this month alone. Add to that list a rare visit from one of the oldest orchestras in the world, the Dresden Staatskapelle, presented at Strathmore by WPAS on Tuesday night. It is a historic ensemble, led by the likes of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Adolph Hasse, Carl Maria von Weber, and Richard Wagner, a position that has now fallen to Christian Thielemann. The esteemed German conductor took the reins in Dresden last fall after an acrimonious departure from the Munich Philharmonic, all given excellent coverage by our own Jens Laurson. Thielemann has released a series of recordings with this new band over the last couple years -- including one of the Brahms violin concerto with Lisa Batiashvili, who came along on the orchestra's all-Brahms tour -- and is in the midst of a U.S. tour.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Thielemann, Dresden offer a mercurial approach to Brahms at Strathmore (Washington Post, April 18)

Andrew Patner, Thielemann, Dresden Staatskapelle make a welcome return to Orchestra Hall (Chicago Sun-Times, April 15)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Thielemann, Batiashvili and Dresden orchestra serve up memorable afternoon of Brahms (Chicago Classical Review, April 15)

Clive Paget, Brahms: Violin Concerto (Batiashvili, Dreden/Thielemann) (Limelight, April 2013)

Zachary Woolfe, Traditions Honored, Then Sidestepped, at Salzburg Easter Festival (New York Times, March 27)

George Loomis, 'Zauberflöte' in a New Easter Home (New York Times, March 26)

Shirley Apthorp, Parsifal, Salzburg Easter Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus (Financial Times, March 25)

John Allison, Christian Thielemann: Germany's most sought-after conductor (The Telegraph, March 22)

Ljubisa Tosic, Christian Thielemann: "Wagner war kein besonders netter Mensch" (Der Standard, March 22)
The Academic Festival Overture, given a subtle but crisp opening by Thielemann, showed off the orchestra's sound, especially the gleaming brass in their chorale moment, as if heard from a distant ivory tower. The louds and softs were all scrupulously managed, revealing the work's structure and many details, finally blossoming into a triumphal parade with the quotation of Gaudeamus igitur. While we were pleased with Lisa Batiashvili's recording of the Sibelius and Lindberg violin concertos a few years ago, we missed hearing her performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, when she also played the Brahms concerto. Thielemann and the musicians treaded very softly during the solo passages, but there was still an element of brawn missing from Batiashvili's tone at the big moments, while the radiant parts, like the closing theme of the first movement, were shining and tender in her hands. The second movement opened with a golden wind and horns serenade, taken up with smoldering beauty and plenty of rubato by Batiashvili, followed by a playfully paced finale, not that fast but with lots of solo fireworks.

The highlights of the program were left for the second half, beginning with a slow burn of a fourth symphony, opening with that distinctive main theme like a gentle tidal pull, no heaving, nothing overwrought, some surges -- especially at the end of the first movement -- but also real delicacy of emotion. The violin section's beautiful sound was meted out carefully, never allowed to overwhelm other parts that were more important. The second movement did not become overly sentimental, emotional pain buried deep inside, followed by a boisterous third movement, enlivened by a somewhat unpredictable approach to the tempo at the podium. The finale had serious zip to it, with Thielemann not giving us a chance to breathe until the section with that lovely flute solo, slowing down to an even more solemn pace for the trombone-heavy section, after which the performance exploded into action again. The energy continued with something we were really hoping to hear, Thielemann's Wagner, with the prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.

* * * *
When the announcement was made that Jenny Bilfield would take over as President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts Society this spring, we made some predictions about what this might mean for that organization's concert schedule. Like Bilfield's work at Stanford Lively Arts, it would likely mean "less Takács Quartet and more Kronos Quartet, less Royal Concertgebouw and more eighth blackbird, less Angela Hewitt and more Esperanza Spalding." Well, WPAS has just announced its line-up for the 2013-14 season, which is not entirely Bilfield's work but gives more indications of what to expect.

Orchestras invited next year include the Mariinsky Theater (with Valery Gergiev) and St. Petersburg Philharmonic (with Vilde Frang as soloist), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (with Gustavo Dudamel), and the Israel Philharmonic (with Gianandrea Noseda) -- in the same category, curiously, WPAS lists the Detroit-based chamber orchestra Sphinx Virtuosi. The piano series includes as "well-established" names Marc-André Hamelin, Louis Lortie, and Murray Perahia -- while I agree with the first and third, probably only Perahia has the broad audience appeal to fill a big house. Among the rising pianists to be featured -- Kit Armstrong, David Greilsammer, Benjamin Hochman, Sam Haywood -- only Martin Helmchen would likely be my pick for a must-hear concert. Under the "Sustaining Established Talent" category, Yuja Wang is someone I would certainly want to hear, but recent concerts by Simone Dinnerstein and Hilary Hahn have been underwhelming (either by musical results or ability to sell a large house). While I have enjoyed concerts by Jeremy Denk and Benjamin Grosvenor, I'm not sure I would put them in the "Piano Masters" category just yet.

Add concerts by violinists Anna Lee and Stefan Jackiw, Germany’s Minguet Quartet, soprano Julia Bullock, and the crossover group Sybarite5, and that is the whole WPAS season. Color me generally unimpressed: there is not much that I would seriously recommend. For those other than classical fans, there is a lot more jazz -- yes, including Esperanza Spalding -- and some world music, none of which is really part of our brief. It seems to me yet another misguided redefining of mission, akin to the Washington National Opera sacrificing part of its limited budget to the production of a musical when plenty of other organizations are devoted to producing musicals. You cannot increase audiences for classical music or opera by reducing the number of performances of it, and musicals, jazz, and world music are really not hurting for venues and organizations to sponsor them, at least not to the degree that opera and classical music are.

1 comment:

geranuk said...

I share your concern about the direction WPAS seems to be taking. In addition to your observations, note that the schedule does not include the Philadelphia Orchestra, which WPAS has brought here every previous season for at least the last 20 years.